1) Skim. Rather than working your way around the gallery’s perimeter like some crazy-art-ninja, let your eyes move quickly over the works in the room- don’t read the plaques! Let your eyes settle on one work that speaks to you. Spend time with that work…how?
2) Despite what you may have heard, context (especially historical) can be useful. Now’s the time to read the plaque…
3) …but don’t let the plaque hold you back from forming your own opinions. Guess what? You can disagree with the plaque! If the curator says that this work is a ‘depiction of heroism,’ and you don’t think so, or think it’s more complicated than that, trust your instincts. Many works of art do explore a ‘theme,’ but it might not be the one the plaque says it is, or you might notice a different one that’s more meaningful for you.
4) Bring what you know to the painting. Whether your expertise is history, math, people, or cooking, you have a wide range of experiences and skill sets that will affect how you view the work. Most people read the plaque, take that information and apply it to a new reading of the work, and then move on. Don’t be that person! Spend a bit more time with the artwork and try reading into it a bit yourself. Perhaps you think this artist did an amazing job with color. Perhaps you love the way the artist captured a particular emotion. Perhaps you notice perspective, or can compare the fashions of the time to the fashions of today. Find your ‘in.’
5) Look ‘deeper’ into the painting. Most people look at faces and action in a work of art, but often ignore the background or the small details. Experiment with looking at the background, the smaller details, the ‘fur on the dog’ so to speak. You might be surprised how much this helps you enjoy the work as a whole.
6) Take a picture. If you’re not allowed, buy the postcard. Find out more about that artist and his/her art, when you get home. You will appreciate the work on a whole other level. Now with the power of Google of course, you can even do research on a gallery bench.
7) Time to challenge your own preconceptions! Choose an artwork that you don’t like, and repeat steps 2-6. We’re not really wired to do this, but this is what art historians do all the time and one of the main reasons I ended up liking (instead of hating with a passion) Pre-Raphaelite art. Once I knew where the artists were coming from, I could appreciate the art a lot more. I’ll never love Pre-Raphaelite art, but learning and growing isn’t just about discovering what you love – it’s also finding reasons to tolerate or like what you thought you never could.
8) If you really don’t like a work of art, try and give reasons for not doing so. “I just don’t like it,” gets you nowhere. Art is obviously very subjective but…not that subjective. Reason-finding is another art historian trick, and is a great mental exercise that helps you in the process of discovering your likes and dislikes. Contrary to what you might think, being able to put into words how you feel and why you feel a certain way is an important step in learning how to appreciate art. Which brings me to…
9) Take a journal with you to the gallery in which to scribble your thoughts down. This will make the whole experience way more concrete and tangible for you, and is great for researching later (plus, you’ll look kind of cool).
10) Let yourself be moved if something moves you. It’s amazing how people sometimes turn away from a work of art right at the moment they begin to ‘feel’ something. Let yourself be with the feeling. Write about it. Dwell.
There you go- my top ten hacks for enjoying art more. I hope they help!